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49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An honourable schoolteacher plays an imperfect spy
Long before le Carre's George Smiley and Len Deighton's Harry Palmer there were Eric Ambler's accidental spies. In the late 1930's the loosely defined adventure/spy genre was not much advanced from the earlier works of Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands) and John Buchan (Thirty Nine Steps). Ambler set out to write a book that added a small bit of realism to the good...
Published on May 22, 2005 by Leonard Fleisig

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing for This Ambler Fan
This is set in Ambler's classic milieu, Europe just before the Second World War, and it is about spies. It is, however, spy fiction at one remove -- the hapless protagonist, a stateless translator, is dragooned into espionage by the French police with the threat of deportation. His activities are set in a Riviera resort, not in the alleys of exotic capitals, and he is not...
Published 12 months ago by Anne Mills


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49 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An honourable schoolteacher plays an imperfect spy, May 22, 2005
By 
Leonard Fleisig "Len" (Virginia Beach, Virginia) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Paperback)
Long before le Carre's George Smiley and Len Deighton's Harry Palmer there were Eric Ambler's accidental spies. In the late 1930's the loosely defined adventure/spy genre was not much advanced from the earlier works of Erskine Childers (Riddle of the Sands) and John Buchan (Thirty Nine Steps). Ambler set out to write a book that added a small bit of realism to the good guy v. bad guy model. The result was a series of highly entertaining and satisfying books that many believe set the stage for the likes of le Carre, Deighton, and, most recently, Alan Furst. Epitaph for a Spy is an excellent representative sample of Ambler's work.

In a footnote written in 1951 Ambler states that he "wrote Epitaph for a Spy in 1937 and it was a mild attempt at realism". 1937 was certainly a good year for realism in Europe and Ambler does an excellent job setting a realistic mood for a continent on the brink of another major war.

The story begins with an itinerant language teacher, Josef Vadassy, returning to Paris from his summer holidays. Vadassy stops off at a little town, St. Gatien, on his return journey. An amateur photographer, Vadassy drops off a roll of film at the local chemists for development. When he goes to pick up the photographs he finds himself under arrest by the French authorities. His film contains photos of a top secret French naval installation. Vadassy has no idea how the photos got there. One of the French agents, recognizing that he did not take the pictures advises Vadassy that he will be free to leave town if he goes back to the hotel and finds out which of the guests is the actual photo-taking spy. Vadassy, a stateless Hungarian traveling on a Yugoslav passport has no choice but to play along.

The rest of the book is devoted to Vadassy's efforts to uncover the spy. In rather traditional fashion, Vadassy hotel is peopled by a diverse but limited group of`suspects'. There is the couple that runs the hotel, an American brother and sister, an English major and his Italian-born wife, a couple enjoying a romantic getaway with someone other than their spouses, a German businessman and a Swiss couple. Vadassy is not a particularly good spy. He has been thrust into a situation for which he is woefully unprepared. In fact he is rather inept. I thought of Vadassy as Hercule Poirot as played by Inspector Clousseau of Pink Panther fame.

As the story progresses, Ambler does a very nice job of fleshing out the underlying personalities of his cast of characters. Not every is quite as it seems of course and Vadassy stumbles from one suspect to the next. By the time the book has reached its conclusion the reader has had an opportunity to assess each character enough to make a guess as to who the real spy is. It is to Ambler's credit that the spy is not readily apparent, at least not to this reader.

Epitaph for a Spy was an excellent read and I look forward to reading more of Ambler's work.

L. Fleisig
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Amateur Counter-Spy and His Bungles!, June 12, 2003
By 
Donald Mitchell "Jesus Loves You!" (Thanks for Providing My Reviews over 124,000 Helpful Votes Globally) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Paperback)
To read or not to read the great spy novels of Eric Ambler? That is the question most people ignore because they are not familiar with Mr. Ambler and his particularly talent.
Mr. Ambler has always had this problem. As Alfred Hitchcock noted in his introduction to Intrigue (an omnibus volume containing Journey into Fear, A Coffin for Dimitrios, Cause for Alarm and Background to Danger), "Perhaps this was the volume that brought Mr. Ambler to the attention of the public that make best-sellers. They had been singularly inattentive until its appearance -- I suppose only God knows why." He goes on to say, "They had not even heeded the critics, who had said, from the very first, that Mr. Ambler had given new life and fresh viewpoint to the art of the spy novel -- an art supposedly threadbare and certainly cliché-infested."
So what's new and different about Eric Ambler writing? His heroes are ordinary people with whom almost any reader can identify, which puts you in the middle of a turmoil of emotions. His bad guys are characteristic of those who did the type of dirty deeds described in the book. His angels on the sidelines are equally realistic to the historical context. The backgrounds, histories and plot lines are finely nuanced into the actual evolution of the areas and events described during that time. In a way, these books are like historical fiction, except they describe deceit and betrayal rather than love and affection. From a distance of over 60 years, we read these books today as a way to step back into the darkest days of the past and relive them vividly. You can almost see and feel a dark hand raised to strike you in the back as you read one of his book's later pages. In a way, these stories are like a more realistic version of what Dashiell Hammett wrote as applied to European espionage.
Since Mr. Ambler wrote, the thrillers have gotten much bigger in scope . . . and moved beyond reality. Usually, the future of the human race is at stake. The heroes make Superman look like a wimp in terms of their prowess and knowledge. There's usually a love interest who exceeds your vision of the ideal woman. Fast-paced violence and killing dominate most pages. There are lots of toys to describe and use in imaginative ways. The villains combine the worst faults of the 45 most undesirable people in world history and have gained enormous wealth and power while being totally crazy. The plot twists and turns like cruise missile every few seconds in unexpected directions. If you want a book like that, please do not read Mr. Ambler's work. You won't like it.
If you want to taste, touch, smell, see and hear evil from close range and move through fear to defeat it, Mr. Ambler's your man.
On to Epitaph for a Spy. During the pre-World War II era, it was common for ordinary citizens to be pressed into espionage activities, whether knowingly or not. These were often wealthy yachtsmen, newspaper reporters and industrialists with connections. Mr. Ambler deliberately makes a joke of that practice by making his "spy" be one of the biggest bunglers you can imagine . . . a predecessor to Inspector Clouseau. In fact, this book is one of the few humorous spy stories. Yet the humor is like that of Shakespeare's clowns . . . to relief the tension from the horrible events happening elsewhere in the story.
To me, Epitaph for a Spy is one of Ambler's greatest accomplishments. He convincingly and appealingly combines elements that I have never seen put together in another espionage story.
It's just before the start of World War II in the south of France, not far from Toulon where the French Mediterranean fleet was docked. Josef Vadassy, a stateless "Hungarian" who works as a language teacher in Paris, is taking for him a luxurious vacation at the shore for two weeks. His only valuable possession is a wonderful camera that he is using to make artistic photographs of lizards. Usually he does his own developing, but being on vacation he wants to see how the effects of his experiments work out so he takes the film to a local chemist. When he returns to pick up the film, he's unexpectedly arrested!
The police commissaire shows him the films and asks, "Was it the lighting, Vadassy, or was it the massing of shadows that so interested you in the new fortifications outside the naval harbor of Toulon?" Shocked by the question, Vadassy looks at the prints. "Lizards, lizards, lizards. Then came a photo from what looked like one end of a concrete gallery . . . I was looking at the long, sleek barrels of siege guns."
The police soon become convinced that he did not take the photographs, but it is a question of national security to find out who did. Surely, it is someone at Vadassy's hotel. He's given the choice of being deported or helping unmask the real spy.
From there, the fun begins. Vadassy is supposed to interrogate the guests, create all kinds of excitement . . . and wander down to the public telephone where all can hear to report his progress every morning. Naturally, he's no match for the spy. The complications will keep you enjoyably mystified as you learn all about the secrets that the guests are hiding.
More seriously, you realize that the police see Vadassy as an expendable pawn in a mortal battle. Ambler wants you to see the dangers of dehumanizing enemies, friends and foes. You'll come away convinced that such "strategic" thinking makes us less secure in ways that we don't appreciate.
After you finish the book, think about parallels to today's world and how we may sometimes compromise our human compassion and spiritual dimensions by first serving "strategic" national interests. I found the issue timely.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Early Ambler, but very good., April 20, 1999
By 
D. R. Schryer (Poquoson, VA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Paperback)
Many people who have heard of the legendary Eric Ambler think of him as a mystery writer, whereas he is actually a writer of novels of intrique and suspense. The exception is Epitaph for a Spy which, while amply full of intrique and suspense, is also a mystery story -- the only true whodunit that Ambler wrote. However it is a mystery story of great integrity with none of the sleight-of-hand used by lesser authors to turn the least plausible person in the book into the guilty party in the last chapter. If you think of Ambler as a mystery writer, read Epitaph for a Spy and you won't be disappointed. But you will probably want to read Ambler's other intriguing novels as well, even if they are not mysteries per se.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and well-written, February 12, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Hardcover)
Reading Epitaph for a Spy made me realize how much better popular/mass-oriented fiction was in the old days. Unlike most of the bestselling writers today, who merely put out glorified screenplays, Ambler (like Ian Fleming) uses style as well as plot to entertain. Epitaph for a Spy is an excellent book, with the southern French setting and characters very vividly described, though it's more of a mystery/detective story than spy fiction in the usual sense.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ambler Finding His Writer's Voice, November 1, 2008
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This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Paperback)
Eric Ambler was one of the great writers of spy novels, in a league with John Le Carre, Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, Graham Greene, and Alan Furst. He began writing in 1936, and this rather tame outing was written in 1937 when Ambler was still searching for his voice and his plots. It is certainly not top drawer Ambler. Until the end it has very little action, little suspense, and the denouement is not particularly clever.
As is often the case in this genre, an amateur has to come up with answers. Ambler is a good stylist and writes vivid descriptive passages that remind me of Joseph Conrad. There's an old-fashioned feel to the book in tone and attitude, but it hasn't aged awfully well, and I wouldn't keep it for a future rereading
Recruited against his will by the secret police, the lay spy Josef Vadassy has to find the real spy among a group of hotel guests. Vadassy's camera is the focal point of the story. He has to probe into the hotel people looking for motivations and secrets. He discovers a number of secrets, and we learn about the political undercurrents of Europe before WWII. Because the narrator is a novice, he does a lot of dumb things which make him relate to the ordinary reader untrained in detection or spycraft.
The technique is to find an ordinary guy, put him under pressure, in a sense blackmail him into cooperating, place him under time restraints, and set him loose to do the dirty work of uncovering the culprit. Ambler gets his readers on board because he gives the narrator and each suspect a personality. "You could never get at the whole man any more than you could see four faces of a cube." A man's mind was "unfathomable, unaccountable."
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Reading, Bad Editing, March 13, 2010
By 
Motley Wisdom (Southern California USA) - See all my reviews
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Eric Ambler has always been a favored author. This drama is still a page-turner. The only fault I found, and which surprised me, is the number of typos in the Kindle-version text. I assume they happened in the coding for Kindle. I could understand it if done by volunteers working on a no-cost public domain work, but this is a $9.99 commercial product.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What He Did on His Vacation, April 22, 2005
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Hardcover)
Josef Vadassy teaches languages in Paris. He takes a vacation on the French Riviera, and brings his Zeiss Contax camera to take photographs. When his roll is finished he brings it in for development. There is a problem when he comes to pick it up: it has pictures of a restricted naval base at Toulon. The police question him, and discover that another camera had been switched for his. Vadassy is stateless; he was born in a part of Hungary that was turned over to Jugoslavia. While a student at the University of Buda-Pesth his elder brother and father were shot by the Jugoslav police for their involvement in politics. The French police demand his cooperation, or he will be deported back to Jugoslavia. Vadassy must inquire among his fellow guests to find the person who also has a Zeiss Contax.

The rest of the book tells of his experiences with the other 12 guests at the small hotel. Vadassy must report his findings to the police each day about the cameras and other events. Vadassy talks to these guests and learns more about them, at least what they tell him. Chapter 13 has the story of Herr Heinberger, more realistic that the story of "Victor Laszlo" of "Casablanca". The plan of the police works, and the real spy is traced to his employer. Vadassy will become a French citizen, and discovers some truths about the other guests. They were not what they seemed.

This was Eric Ambler's first successful novel. Like his other novels, it shows the struggle of one person against the power of a state, and his survival. The 'Footnote' for the 1951 edition says the Sumerian rulers of Mesopotamia were using undercover operators thousands of years before Moses sent spies into Canaan. Yet spy stories were only published in the early twentieth century. Detective stories were first published in the mid-nineteenth century. I suspect that society was mostly rural or in small town, and did not have the big cities that need detectives, or the imperialism that needed spies.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars THE spy story, January 30, 2010
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This is the book that first got me into spy stories years ago. It is old fashioned in that the sex is subtle and the violence limited, but its plot, persona, and sense of place are unbeatable. The Sherlock Holmes of spy stories. More lively than Lecarre. Furst is perhaps a rival.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An entertaining read from modern spy fiction's founding father., May 26, 2007
By 
Michael G. "mikefromrochester" (Rochester, NY United States) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)   
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Paperback)
Josef Vadassy, an unassuming Hungarian emigre, checks into an equally unassuming resort in the south of France for a quiet break from his job as a language instructor in Paris. Out of the blue, he is called upon by the French authorities to help apprehend a dangerous spy.

Written by Eric Ambler in 1937, Epitaph for a Spy is a classic "fish out of water" story. Though fluent in five languages, Vadassy is otherwise woefully unsuited for his new found role as amateur spycatcher. A bit of a bumbler sometimes given to flights of fantasy, Vadassy is no James Bond to be sure. In fact, he's so unlikely a protagonist, the book takes on a sustained comedic edge that greatly adds to its overall appeal.

What's more, Ambler cleverly usurps the well worn British drawing room murder mystery format and ingeniously applies it to the espionage genre. As the narrative unfolds, both Vadassy and the reader get to know an interesting assortment of hotel guests, all of whom are potential suspects and none of whom are exactly what they present themselves to be.

Epitaph for a Spy is well crafted, fast paced and very amusing. Well worth reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Appealing Escape, September 2, 2010
This review is from: Epitaph for a Spy (Paperback)
A hapless school teacher vacationing among a cosmopolitan gathering of travelers seems an unlikely setting for a spy novel, but the ordinariness of this whodunit story makes it fun. Although a bit slow out the gate, Epitaph for a Spy picks up speed through a series of entertaining foibles, takes a serious turn with a peek into Nazi Germany, and rounds out the adventure with some high flying action among the rooftops. Like other Ambler tales, this one is in many ways improbable. But by casting an ordinary character in an extraordinary series of events, its appeal is inescapable to those looking for a temporary escape.
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Epitaph for a Spy
Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler (Paperback - February 5, 2002)
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